Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Power of Breathing

The Power of Breathing
By Dr. RandyBorum

(Article first appeared in Black Belt Magazine, July, 2009)

Author's Note: This article marks the end of Black Belt Magazine's "Psyched!" column. It has been a pleasure writing for them the past couple of years, and I appreciate the opportunity to share information on sport psychology with fighters and martial artists. Thanks, also, to all of you who read the column. - RB

It has been said that “Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life.” It is also a very powerful tool for the martial artist. The use of breathing and breath control has a long history in the traditional arts. From the tradition of budo and the Japanese arts, the “kiai” is thought to enhance one’s power in executing a strike or technique. The Korean arts similarly use the “Kihap.” While the kiai is often thought of just as a shout that accompanies physical movement, it has a much deeper design.

Properly used, the kiai connects the mental and physical elements of a technique, and serves both defensive and offensive functions. The meaning of the term itself denotes a concept of a unified or integrated (“ai) spirit or mind (“ki”). Breath control is an integral part of its execution.

The kiai involves a forceful exhale and contraction of the abdominal and diaphragmatic muscles. Defensively, the exhale prevents the wind from being knocked out of you and the muscle contraction helps to shiled your internal organs. Offensively, the shout may frighten or distract and opponent – as emphasied by samurai Miyamoto Musashi, while the contracted core musculatrure strengthens the kinetic chain, enhancing the power of the blow. With the kiai or hihap comes an exaplsive relaease of inner energy, not just a shout.

Another simple advantage of kiai, of course, is that reminds you to breathe. That alone makes a valuable tool for the martial artist. When someone new to the arts or to combative sports first begins sparring, it is very common for them to hold their breath and tense their muscles. It’s a kind of natural reaction to having someone else trying to punch you in the face. But it can be a bad habit.

Your muscles need oxygen to function properly. Tense muscles require even more oxygen, because tension is a muscular action. Your body gets most of its oxygen from the air you inhale. If you are not inhaling, you are not providing a steady supply of oxygen to your muscles or to your other vital organs that require it – like your brain and eyes. This produces a higher “oxygen cost” and ultimately causes your mind and body not to perform as well as they should. Holding the breath for too long can also spike your blood pressure and cause dizziness. Your muscles definitely get tired more quickly. The result is that you become winded in a very short time. There are other problems too, but you get the idea.

Tactical police and military operators realize the need to breathe and integrate it into their training. Sometimes referred to as “tactical breathing” or “combat breathing”, these strategies are designed to be applied quickly even in high risk encounters. If you are clearing a building with an unknown number of bad guys – or even anticipating an ugly encounter on the street – you probably don’t want to fold yourself up into the lotus position, close your eyes, and do a breathing exercise. But you definitely should breathe.

David Grossman, who along with Bruce Siddle is one of the founders of the “Warrior Science Group” often teaches a very simple form of combat breathing that involves inhaling for a four count, holding for a four count, exhaling for a four count, and pausing. They point out that this will help to keep your heart rate in a better range (which also reduces your perceived anxiety). Research also shows that the exhale – or “expiratory response” - especially sends calming signals throughout your body.

Within the reality-based martial arts, Systema has probably the most active focus on the importance of breathing – and learning to breathe – in a threatening encounter. In their training and in their book and DVD “Let Every Breath”, Vladimir Vasiliev and colleagues advocate a technique known as burst breathing. Rather than long and deep breaths, burst breathing involves a regular series of sharp exhales through the mouth at the moment of any impact, followed immediately by a sharp inhale through the nose. They find this method is more applicable to hand-to-hand and close quarter combat situations, but produces the same benefit in reducing tension and upping the oxygen intake.

There are many ways to breathe “correctly” and many uses for different breathing techniques and exercises. The most important thing is not to hold your breath, to have a regular pattern of inhaling (through the nose) and exhaling (through the mouth). For purposes of training, having some system or method to follow – regardless of which one you choose – will help. You probably will not get very far just tying to tell yourself not to hold your breath. Instead – just breathe.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Great post. I was reading also that breathing can be used to control your emotional state. When you are nervous before a fight or competition, the correct breathin methods can be uses to change your state of mind relatively fast. Steady breaths taken From below the navel can leave you feeling suddenly calm.